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‘Mad dog’ with a mighty bite

  • 14 May 2006

In Burkina Faso, the world’s third poorest country, President Blaise Compaoré just can’t let go of power.

The story of Burkina Faso and its president is a familiar African tale. President Compaoré has ruled Burkina Faso for almost two decades, first as a military ruler. Then, when the winds of change swept Africa, he reinvented himself as a champion of democracy in order to cling to power.

He won Burkina Faso’s first democratic elections in 1991 as the only candidate. Two weeks after the polls, Clement Ouédraogo, the main opposition leader, was assassinated, a crime for which no one has ever been charged.

In 1998, President Compaoré won another resounding victory, but only after opposition leaders boycotted the polls, alleging that the rules had been drafted to make the president’s re-election inevitable.

The widespread suspicion of electoral fraud notwithstanding, few doubted that President Compaoré would have won free and fair elections against a deeply divided opposition, and the president remained popular for bringing stability, if nothing else, to the country. However, not long after the 1998 elections, Norbert Zongo, a journalist and prominent government critic, was murdered while investigating the death of a driver employed by the president’s brother. An independent, internationally sanctioned inquiry found that Zongo’s killers had strong links to the government. Public anger spilled onto the streets and Ouagadougou was the scene of massive strikes and demonstrations on a scale that Burkina Faso had never before witnessed.

A shaken government introduced a reform to the electoral law whereby presidents were limited to two terms.

In November last year, however, President Compaoré pulled a master stroke that would have made any lawyer proud. He announced that the law did not apply retroactively and that he was free to stand in November’s presidential elections, not to mention the following ones scheduled for 2012. The Constitutional Court, all of whose judges are Compaoré appointees, agreed.

Salif Diallo, director of the president’s re-election campaign, justified Compaoré’s creative legal interpretation in the following terms: ‘Legally, President Compaoré can be a candidate. A constitutional revision brings a new constitution with it and the old formula no longer holds.’

Rival presidential candidate of the opposition Union for Renewal Party, Benewende Sankara, was blunt in his assessment: ‘Compaoré’s candidacy is improper not only in legal terms ... it is improper because after 18 years of his rule, Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries on